Cathedral archives: Queen of May

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

Our archives include many photographs of May processions up and down the Archdiocese. A lot of them were originally published in the pages of the Catholic Pictorial in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the records do not show why the tradition is not as widespread as it once was.
In English folk tradition, the May Queen seems to have origins in Tudor village celebrations of springtime. According to this rural tradition, local girls in white dresses formed a retinue of attendants for the May Queen, who was usually crowned by the previous year’s queen. The Victorian fashion for reinventing national myths was then given a push by ‘The May Queen’, a long poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson published in 1855. Maypole dancing was created as an educational and physical pursuit. Processions became a vital part of community activity. Possibly the creation of workers’ holidays in May helped, too, in the development of parish processions and festivities.
Catholic churches in the early 20th century seem to have grafted some of these elements of pageantry on to celebrations associated with the worship of the Virgin Mary. The month of May has been associated with devotions to Our Lady for several centuries, originally in Italy but spreading throughout the Catholic world. The garlanding or crowning of a statue appears to have been imported from the eastern church.
Photographs in the archives from at least the 1920s show processions with May Queens, and crownings of statues of Mary, in parishes not just in Liverpool but elsewhere in Lancashire. Processions could have included the appointment of a Queen of the May, the crowning of a statue of the Virgin Mary with flowers, or a solemn procession with the men of the parish carrying a statue around the church before bearing it inside. The Children of Mary or a resident order of nuns might also have taken a turn heading the procession with the statue for veneration. Very often the processions were combined with school celebrations of First Holy Communion.
A display of these photographs can be seen at the Archdiocesan archives during May. The one here dates from 1931 and shows Catherine Finnan, May Queen for St Augustine’s parish, Liverpool.